Blessed Are the Shalom Makers

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Sermon I preached at International Christian Fellowship, 9-3-17, on Matthew 5:9, looking at the biblical concepts of shalom and justice and how they fit together.  Biblically, if we desire shalom, we seek God’s justice for others.

I  use a whole bunch of other Scriptures, so it may help to have a Bible to track with me.

BTW,  it’s 34:53, not 49:09.  Don’t let the timer fool you.  

Across the Street

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(Photo:  our street)

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Being a missionary is weird.

So, what do you do?” “I’m a missionary.” “Whoa!” The converstion changes. People treat you differently. There’s now this distance between you and them.

People ask where you live and you tell them and even that changes the conversation. You don’t have to admit what you do and you still get the “you’re a different species” response. They say things like, “I could never do that,” and “You must be so…” and then fill it in with something you know you’re not, like brave or faithful or fluent in Spanish. (Okay, Kim is.)

The flip side is that people have strong opinions, stronger perhaps than with other vocations, of how you should be spending your time and money at the job that they “know” they could never do. Going to a movie in Nicaragua costs about $4, and any time I mention going to a movie I feel a need to explain how cheap it is because people do—I’m not speculating here, these are real conversations—say things like “You can afford to go see movies? I don’t even get to go to the movies here!” Of course, that’s in addition to the people who are shocked that we have movies or electricity or indoor plumbing…

Imagine having a whole bunch of people who are all part of giving toward your paycheck and they all have an opinion on how you should do your job. Just imagine that, Pastor Tim.

Here is a truth that might offend you–and as I say this I’m remembering both that New Song may be our most faithful supporting church and that this is the church at which I once was shouted at while I was preaching…and not even by Tim.

So that’s your warning; here’s the offensive truth:

It’s not okay that people are poor. It’s not. It’s not okay with God. The Bible is all about justice for the poor and God’s care for people suffering poverty. “You matter to God so you matter to us,” says the sign as we enter New Song’s building. God’s not okay with people being poor so we’re not okay with people being poor. Same reasoning.

When Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you,” he didn’t mean, “You know, that’s just gonna happen, may as well accept it and move on, no fixing a big problem like that.” Jesus wasn’t a fatalist. He never says anything else in the Gospels that we read as fatalistic. In fact, Jesus said if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”


Concerning people who are poor, Jesus meant the opposite of “No biggie, don’t worry about it.” Jesus meant, literally, “You’ll always be with poor people; of course you will, because you’re my followers. I’m with the poor, in fact I identity myself as the poor, and because you are my disciples, my sent ones, you’re going to be with people in poverty also.” Jesus doesn’t describe loving or helping people who are in need as some project for us to get done. In Mathew 25, Jesus says helping them is helping me; loving them is loving me. It makes no sense to say, “I love Jesus but I won’t love people suffering hunger or thirst, I won’t love strangers or sick people or prisoners.” Jesus says, “I am those people. When you love them, you love me. When you don’t love them, you reject me.” It’d be like saying, “I love Tim, but I do not love Royals fans. I will not love a Royals fan.” But…Tim is a Royals fan. That doesn’t work. They’re inseparable.  “I love Jesus, but those dirty, stinky, irresponsible people who are hungry and thirsty and refugees, I will not love them.” That doesn’t work.  It doesn’t make sense.  

When Jesus sends us, we get going on following Him, doing what he did, loving whom he loved, letting God’s spirit flow through us so that now God is incarnate in the world through us. HE sends us. And we go because we love him; we go out to love him.

It’s not okay with God that people are poor; we are God’s plan to do something about it. You and me. That’s a big job and we’re a small church. But that’s the deal. God never promises we will eradicate poverty in the world. But God just doesn’t tend to give us a lot of the specifics about how any of this will all play out. We know the big picture: God will redeem and restore, and there will be no more death, God will wipe away every tear, no more cycle of poverty, no more children going hungry. For now, we get very clear directions from Jesus—you might even call them “commandments”–about loving other people, caring for people suffering poverty, not letting money become our master, not being anxious about what we have, using what we have to love and bless others and advance God’s Kingdom.

Those are our directions from Jesus about people living in poverty around us, whether “strangers in the land,” people living in other countries, or people living across the street. A lawyer tries to dance around what Jesus means by “Love your neighbor,” and Jesus defines it for him with a story: “Those people whom you hate and fear, the ones you judge and believe God judges, let’s start with them.” But Jesus, being Jesus, doesn’t tell a story about how a good Jew is supposed to love a wounded, hated Samaritan. No, Jesus being Jesus tells a story about how a hated Samaritan loved a wounded Jew after the “Good” Jews showed apathy toward him as he’s lying there dying by the side of the road. The Jews crossed the road to avoid their fellow Jew.  The Samaritan crossed the road to get to him, to save his life. Apathy is the opposite of love. And neighbor becomes the opposite of enemy.

So, if you’re tracking with me, what I’m telling you so far is that: God loves all people, including people living in poverty; Jesus commands us to love other people, specifically people suffering poverty, and loving them is loving Jesus. As you can tell by Jesus commands,“love” means a lot more than “feel warm and fuzzy toward.” What exactly does “love” mean? For our purposes today, we’ll say love means, “treat the way God wants them treated.” That’s not bad, right? Does God want them judged or hated or ignored by us? Or does God want us to care for and share with them, empower and encourage them and tell them about his astounding, endless, grace-filled love for him? That’s a rhetorical question.

Now I’m guessing if you’ve been at New Song longer than 2 weeks, you’ve heard most of this before. Pastor Tim, one of my favorite people in the world, visited us last year to see our place and meet some of our neighbors across the street. We were talking about New Song’s work in India and Ensenada and the Wenatchee Valley. I asked some question about “How does it work with New Song’s other missionaries?” and Tim said, “You’re the only ones, you and Samuel and Sarah.” Because all of New Song’s ministry in countries suffering extreme poverty is directly with the leaders in those countries. The orphanages and schools and pastor trainings you folks support are all with the people who live there. You are part of making their calling possible. New Song is loving Jesus in those places.

We’ve been in Nicaragua for six years now. We went there because Jesus said “Go.” Actually, Jesus was there before we were and he said, “Come, join me.”  But why did he say that to us? If I really want it to get tense in here, why didn’t he say that to you? Or has he?

Why did Jesus say “Come love these people in Nicaragua with me?” Why did Jesus say, “Cross this street, love these neighbors?”

Well, obviously, God said that because these people are poor and need our help. There’s a problem so God sent us to work on it.  Right?

No, I don’t think that’s the main reason. As a high school science teacher of mine often said, “That’s the right answer, but that’s not the answer I’m looking for.”

Well, obviously, God called us because we are exceptionally gifted, capable people who can have the biggest impact in Nicaragua. Right?

Wrong.

Okay, last try. Why did Jesus invite me and Kim and our family to love people in Nicaragua, some shockingly poor, some wealthier than we are (whoa, that wealthy!), some Nicaraguan, some Chinese, some Korean, some gringos from Canada and the U.S, a few Germans and a family from Zimbabwe?

I believe the primary reason Jesus called us there is the same reason God has us do anything.  It’s why we come together in this building on Sunday morning or gather in someone’s house during the week.  It’s the same reason you spend time praying.

God invited us to Nicaragua to be with us. We gather in worship on Sunday morning because we believe God is present here when two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. We come because God’s here.  I hike so much when I’m back in the Pacific Northwest because that’s where it’s easiest for me to experience being with God.  

To be clear:  God doesn’t call us to Nicaragua because we’re good at being Christians, or even because we have the specific spiritual gifts the people of Nicaragua need. God calls us to Nicaragua so we will be with him. When God calls us to be with him, he doesn’t just call us to hang out. God calls us to be with Him and being with Him changes us. Specifically, being with God changes us into the image of Jesus.

I want to make certain you’re getting what I’m saying here: God loves people in poverty and God shares with us His love for them by making us part of His Kingdom work to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Loving them isn’t a job we do for God; loving them is loving God. Our calling is not merely the task God give us, it is the way God has designed us to be with Him. God is not one of those bosses that just wants the work done and considers the workers interchangeable parts with no value other than completing the work. NO, God love us and calls us to be with him because he loves us.

There’s a funny moment in the Gospels that I’d always wrestled with. The story is in Mark 5 and Luke 8. Jesus heals a man who has a LOT of demons. Jesus casts all of those demons out, frees the man, restores him, and then sits and talks with him. Listens to him.  Loves him.

The village people freak out a bit because when Jesus cast out the demons , they begged Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs. Jesus did. Then the pigs did a swan dive off a cliff and plunged to their death. You can see how that passage could raise some questions, though if you are offended about the pigs dying, let he or she who has never eaten bacon cast the first stone. Side point. No, the question that’s always bugged me about this passage isn’t about pigs or even about how people can see such an awe-inspiring, life-restoring miracle and ask the miracle doer, “Please go away?”

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

What, Jesus? I thought your ministry was “Come, follow me.” “Drop those nets, follow me, I’ll teach you to catch folk, not fish.” “Leave your tax collecting and follow me.” “Sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me.”

So here we have Jesus casting out a Legion of demons, the guy says, “Can I come, too?” and Jesus tells him, “No. Go tell everyone what God has done for you.”

That used to just drive me nuts. What? If anybody was ever in need of a little new believer care, it would be this guy, right? Does Jesus just not like him as well as everybody else? Doesn’t particularly want that follower?

This passage finally made sense to me in Nicaragua.  Jesus loves this guy. Jesus came to that specific beach in Gentile territory (pigs, remember?) to heal and restore this particular man. But Jesus has a different calling for him, a different direction for him to go in order to be with God. “And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.This man has a wild testimony. He has been through some awful things, to put it mildly. To know God better, to draw closer to God, this man needs to go and tell the people in the Decapolis what God has done for him. “Deca” means ten, so ten Gentile cities.  He becomes the first evangelist in gentile lands.

“But Mike, look what this guy’s been through! Why would God send someone so unequipped?” Let me answer your question with a question: Why would God send a forty-something year old man who doesn’t speak Spanish and who is not particularly gifted at learning Spanish to a Spanish-speaking country? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked God, “Why didn’t you send someone from here who was already fluent in Spanish?”

God loves us. He does what he knows we need, he treats us how he knows we need to be treated to know him. He draws us to him and through that he makes us more like him.

God’s desire for us is to be with him. I John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” God’s commitment to us is that he will make us like him, that he will be faithful to complete the work he’s started. And God’s means to do this work in us is our calling. Let me say that again: Our calling is what God uses as his means to bring us closer to him.  We are called to be with God and through our calling God transforms us to be more like Jesus.

Here are a few implications. I’m not answering these, but I’m leaving them for you to ponder.  The joy of being a guest preacher is that I get to make the mess and then leave it for Pastor Tim to clean up.  

1)We kinda gotta know our calling.

How has God made you? How does God want you to know him better? What is God saying to you? Are you following your calling now? Are you knowing God through that?

2)Our callings don’t necessarily entirely make rational sense to us.

Funny thing about God is, he’s God. My friend Pastor Bismarck and I have developed this saying: No soy Dios; Dios es Dios, Gracias a Dios.  I’m not God.  I don’t have all the answers.  I don’t know all the reason.  What God does will not always make sense to me, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t calling me.  

Jesus identifies with the poor. There are many kinds of poverty all around us. One out of five kids in Wenatchee lives below the poverty line.  There’s also severe poverty in Nicaragua and North Africa. God can call us anywhere. He can send us to the Decapolis to proclaim what God has done. He can send us to a Spanish-speaking country when we are Spanish-language challenged. He’s God. We know that God calls us to love the poor in some form, all of us, because that’s whom Jesus tells us he is. And our calling is to be with Jesus.

3)Mileydi and Juan Carlos live across the street.  Kim and Mileydi have become sisters.  The family who sells tortillas for six cents a piece have their driveway directly across from ours. What God has called us to may seem crazy and foreign and you might even leave here saying, “Thank God that God isn’t calling us to go there!” When we were training in Honduras to go to Nicaragua, Samuel and I saw pictures and heard stories of a certain country in North Africa and afterward we literally said to each other, “Well, at least we aren’t called there!” Then Samuel and Sarah fell in love and now Samuel is there. Because God’s funny like that. If I’ve learned anything from these six years, it’s that God loves us so much that he does whatever it takes for us to be with him. Go to Nicaragua…and then cross the street.

So where is Jesus?  Where is he waiting for you, calling for you to join him?  Where is he calling you to cross the street?

Children of Light

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[Manuscript of Sermon I preached on Ephesians 5:1-20 on 6-4-17]

1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 3 But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. 5 Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.7 Therefore do not be associated with them. 8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

 15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.


How many of you here have had the experience of being without electricity, having the power go off? What is that like? What about when that happens in the evening, after 6pm? Okay, so picture you’re now sitting there, but you also have to get something done. Now you’ve got no internet. Maybe you have an assignment that’s due that night, or a crucial email you have to send for your ministry, or something for work that will not wait until morning, and the lights are out, the connection is dead. You feeling that?

And now the lights come back on. How do you feel?

When I became a Christian, it was that feeling but to infinity. I was in the darkness all the time, nothing I did helped, the harder I tried the worse I made it, and then God turned the lights on and it was like, “Oh. Now I can see!”

There are different ways you can read this passage. One is to read it as a list of warnings: These things are bad and you must avoid them. Another way to read it is as a means of identifying who is going to hell. “No fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” So fornicators, impure people, and greedy people—who are idolaters. If you can read that and sit there confidently thinking, “Yep, them. Those people have no part in God’s Kingdom,” then it’s possible you and I have a different understanding of grace and of impurity.

I’ve heard this passage used for each of these two purposes. It’s not a bad thing to warn people against various sins. If sin is what damages and kills us, then we should know what we need to avoid. The problem is, we move quickly from, “these are the things I need to avoid” to “following Jesus is only about avoiding these things.”

But when you read through this passage, when you read through Ephesians, you see Paul has in mind something much bigger than lists of warnings and “do’s and don’t’s.” Paul addresses a question that only gets more important as our lives go on: Who are we?

I’ve had some wonderful mentors in my life. Several of them have emphasized a lesson that shapes how I read Scripture and how I understand following God: Doing flows from Being.

The things we do come from who we are, from how we understand our identity. How many of you have ever told a child or teenager to do something and gotten the answer, in one form or another, “Why should I?” Which probably means, “That doesn’t matter to me and I don’t want to.” Often the answer to “why should I” is because I have some power over you that I will exert if you don’t. But last night, when I looked at the sink full of dirty dishes and though, “Why should I?” the real answer was, “Well, who am I?” I’m a Jesus follower. Jesus leads us by serving us and teaches us to serve. And honestly, late last night, that’s why I did the dishes, because I want to be like Jesus, and that means I want to be a servant like Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong. These are important warnings in Ephesians 5, and we should pay attention: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.” Listen—if you have people telling you that bad things are really good, don’t be deceived. Or if anyone is trying to convince you that you can be good on your own and don’t need God’s help, or the opposite, that God is never pleased with you, that you are never good enough and God saves you out of obligation but does not delight in you, those are empty words, empty without the depth or substance of Scripture, empty of truth and empty of life. Do not listen to them or to anyone teaching them.

But Paul didn’t write this passage in his prison cell merely as a warning. We always try to get the full context of Scripture because context makes all the difference. The first 6 verses serve as a warning and verse 7 instructs sternly, “Therefore do not be associated with them.” But the center of the passage comes in verse 8.

 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Following Jesus means more than trying to stay clean from sin, or even than trying to obey Jesus to stay clean.

Paul echoes Jesus here. IN the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus says: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Okay, track with me for a second. I believe this is the center of the passage: Once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light. The center is who we are, our identity, and what we do comes from who we are. Doing flows from being. What does it mean that we’re light? How did we get to be light?

Passages like these sound bad to people who do not follow Jesus because it sounds like we’re saying something extremely egotistical and superior. Yes, that does matter, because 1)that’s a complete misunderstanding of our relationship with God, and 2)it can push people away from the Gospel. So let’s be really clear:

Paul suggests not only are people who reject God doing bad stuff, but they are darkness. Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are Light. In the Lord. None of us fixed ourselves. We didn’t become the higher class of spirituality, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps of our souls and achieve the Christian-American dream of becoming better than everyone else. That is NOT what happened.

The change happens not because we fix things in ourselves or we find “The Secret” or figure out how to self-actualize or make ourselves holy. We certainly do not change from darkness to light because we were told the rules and learned to follow them better.

God rescued us. God threw himself in our path while we were charging toward hell, he threw his body in our way. He knocked us out of the way of the oncoming Prado and in Jesus Christ got run over and crushed in our place. That analogy isn’t bad, except that we weren’t innocent pedestrians who just happened to make a foolish choice to get in the road.

We had committed to poisoning ourselves and the people around us. Not satisfied with our own death, we were also pouring poison into the glasses of those within our reach. The Gospel’s not easy to take, when we let ourselves get what it really says. We were God’s enemies. We were heading to hell and inviting others to join us for the trip. Jesus took the poison from our hands, but we’d already drunk it, so Jesus took the poison from our bodies, too. He took the death we’d ingested and let it kill him instead of us. He took our death in him and gave us his life, instead. That’s grace—when you deserve something bad and instead are given something good. We deserved the worst and got the best.

 In the Lord, you are light. Now that we’ve been extremely clear on how that happened, the center of Paul’s argument is this: God has transformed us. In God, In Jesus Christ, we are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. God is light and in him there is no darkness. We are God’s children; in God, we become children of light.

Here’s the thing about light and darkness: it’s not an even match. Darkness can never, ever win when light is present. Never. Did I say that enough times? Never. If light is present, at all, then darkness is vanquished. You might’ve seen horror movies where the last match is burning out and the darkness and the bogeyman are about to take over. But that’s not darkness triumphing over light, that’s running out of matches. You are light in Jesus. You don’t worry about running out of matches because In Jesus, God has made you light.

I said that reading this as a passage of warning or even instruction is too limited because it is a passage of identity. We will never succeed at stopping ourselves from doing bad things by just being warned. Please get the difference between: stop, don’t be greedy or impure or sexually immoral or say nasty, vulgar things

and In Jesus Christ God has made you light, and God is transforming you. God’s Spirit dwells in us. Our hearts are filled with God, and God is not letting us go. Doing flows from being.

Paul knows that the battle within our hearts continues. He instructs the Ephesians Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Paul doesn’t assume that the Ephesians are automatically doing all the right things, but he is reminding them of their identity—who they were, who they are now. The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Darkness cannot exist in the presence of light. So in God as we begin to walk with Jesus, as we begin to extend grace to ourselves and others, as we start to love our neighbor as ourselves, we see the fruit of the light—all that is good and right and true, all that is of God, shines and makes more visible.

I think Paul’s next line is really interesting: try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Try to find out. Of course, we could make a list right now, all together, of things we believe are pleasing to God. But when Paul phrases it this way, I think it means in your individual life, try to find that out. Try to find out how your life can be pleasing to God. Remember, this is attached to “live as children of light.” What does God have for you to do that brings light into darkness?

Then, continuing his metaphor, Paul considers how to oppose the darkness.

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light.

This all requires wisdom. We must recognize the difference between darkness and light in order to avoid taking part in “unfruitful works of darkness.” The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true, and the fruitfulness of light is that it spreads, bringing light, bringing God’s Presence, into more places–in our hearts, into the world around us. Then it follows that works of darkness are unfruitful because they don’t spread any light, they don’t bring God’s Presence; they may pretend to bring light, but you can see from their results: if they have not brought any light forth, if they have made big promises for the light they would spread but when you look, you can’t see anything of God being revealed or brought to life, then these works are unfruitful. These are works of darkness.

Okay, I love weaving in metaphors, and I could play with this all day—heck, I might even write a book. “All that is good and right and true” is wonderfully broad and I don’t want to give any limits that narrow God’s infinite creativity. Just because you’re not doing good in the same way I am does not mean you’re doing it wrong. But it’s also helpful to be concrete with these things: The works of light are when people are experiencing Shalom, true reconciliation with God and one another, when we know God’s love more deeply, when we are reconciled to God and forgive and ask forgiveness, when we are healed from our shame and self-hatred and repent of our pride and violence and racism and arrogance. When people become Jesus followers. When we feed hungry people and and give thirsty people drink, when we visit prisoners and care for sick people and welcome strangers and refugees and orphans and embraced them, those are the signs of God’s Kingdom, those are the works of the light. There are more, of course. But they have to be these, as well. If you’re told these are not works of light, you are hearing empty words; don’t be deceived.

 

So as children of light, we’re exposing works of darkness. That can be scary. Darkness often does not like to have light shined on it. I’m sure we can all verify this in our own lives. Even though we know that light brings life and darkness brings death, even so, it’s tempting to remain in the darkness because we think having darkness revealed is shameful. That’s just a trick to keep us in the dark. Staying in darkness is deadly; having darkness revealed brings life. If we say we are without sin, we make God a liar and the truth is not in us; if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive all our sins.” We are light, in Jesus. Therefore, we don’t participate in the works of darkness, we don’t keep their secrets (as the quote goes “you’re as sick as your secrets”). Instead, we bring bad things into God’s light, knowing that this is the only way to life.

but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light.”

I don’t know if I could make an argument for this according to the properties of physics, but then we’re already in metaphysics when we agreed that we are light. God redeems. When things are exposed by the light, they become visible and now have the possibility of redemption. Evil, which grows in dark and hidden places, is called out for what it is. Everything that becomes visible is light. Again, I take this to mean the absence of light is the only place darkness can thrive, and everything, including us, once brought into the light can itself become light.

 

Continuing in verse 14: Therefore–because this is true–it says,

Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

(Is. 60:1-2)

This is resurrection. The “sleeper” isn’t having a nice snooze, but is dead, as when Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” He died. But the light God brings resurrects dead spirits, it brings dead souls back to life. Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you. You will become a daughter or son of the light.

The last 5 verses are instructions again. You can see now the structure of Paul’s message here. Last week’s passage that Matt House preached ended, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love…” Identity and instructions for that identity, right? Be this and then you will do this. You are beloved children, so be imitators of God and live in love as Jesus loved us.

Our passage today reveals our identity as children of light and gives ideas of how to live as who we are. Now we end with some specific exhortations.
15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

How we live as people of light becomes very important. Paul wrote this mid-way through the first century to people living under the Roman empire and in a city that worshiped the “Goddess” Artemis, and followers of Jesus suffered much persecution. The days were evil. It’s not difficult to argue that our days are evil, too, so much so that I’m not going to bother to prove that to you. We all know the evil and darkness around us. So I want to focus on the exhortation for a moment: live not as unwise people bus as wise, making the most of the time. To our ears, that might sound like, “Oh, Man, work hard, get the job done!” But listen to what follows: 1)don’t be foolish, but understand the will of the Lord, 2)Don’t get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery—you’re not going to be wise or making the most of the time if you’re going around drunk, right 3)but be filled with the Spirit as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Remember, Paul’s in a prison, and probably not a nice one, not clean and safe and 3 meals a day. He’s in this place and he insists that his disciples in Ephesus spend their time as wisely as possible, they make the best use of their time–by singing praises to God! Come on, that’s cool. Glorify god. Let God’s spirit fill you and, in the way that you connect with God, worship him. Now I would say Paul is saying “don’t waste your time and get sidetracked on things that have nothing to do with the Kingdom.” You are children of light; live as children of light. God’s will for each of us is the same, yet individual. And we’re going to be at the heart of that by making melody to the Lord in our hearts. That’s how we are light in the world.

Unity in Christ Manuscript

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Last week, the seniors at Nicaragua Christian Academy International put on a “Color Run,” in which people ran a certain distance, either three or five kilometers, while other people, stationed along the race route, sprayed the runners with water and then threw colorful powders on them. It was hilarious. It was fun. I ran with my 9-year-old and we had a blast. AND, a certain blonde daughter of mine ran…and her hair is now what she terms “aggressively strawberry blonde.” Or you might call it pink.

The humorous part of this is that Nicaragua Christian Academy International, the school at which I teach Bible classes and coach basketball and soccer and do a few other things, also has a rule against dyeing one’s hair. The rule states specifically that the student’s hair may not be dyed any “unnatural” colors.

Aria, and a few other students, have of course been attending their classes faithfully, with dyed hair.

Now what does that have to do with Unity in Christ? I have no idea, but I think it’s really funny.

Just kidding.

In I Corinthians, Paul is addressing the Jesus followers in Corinth about their conflicts and arguments. “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

They are fighting over which person discipled them, who helped them to know Jesus Christ, from which teacher or pastor they learned the Gospel.

Paul goes on to say in verse 18, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Here’s the thing about the Cross of Jesus Christ: why? Why does God choose to became a helpless baby and then a young man who argues with Rabbis in the Temple instead of being where his parents thought he was supposed to be and then a rabbi himself with, seemingly, with no formal training who calls utterly underqualified disciples many of whom probably can’t stand each other, judging by their conflicting backgrounds, and why does he walk around Galilee and Capernaum and all over Israel teaching women and holding children on his lap and casting out demons and touching lepers and even walking on water and raising the dead back to life…and then just dies. No, doesn’t just die, is tortured to death in the most horrific, brutal manner, while his enemies mock him—his enemies mock him while he’s dying, and then he’s dead.

But of course that isn’t the end of the story—not even close to the end of the story, considering that we’re part of the story. But it looks like a foolish story—a love-preaching, healing rabbi rises up, gets a few thousand followers by feeding them and teaching them to love not just their neighbors but their enemies, their enemies for Pete’s sake, and the bad guys—some of those very enemies he was talking about—grab him by paying off one of his closest disciples to sneak them information about when they could ambush him without being caught in the act by his thousands of enthusiastic followers. They stage a travesty of a trial, getting witnesses to lie about what he’s said and done. And then they find him guilty—for telling the truth—and they beat him brutally. He dies a ghastly death.

But the after story is even more foolish-sounding than the story. He rises from the dead.

He does what?

But wait, it’s more than that, not merely that he has somehow not stayed dead but that during the time he was dead, he was doing what? Changing the past? Changing the future? Talking with the spirits of people in hell? Absorbing all the guilt of all the bad things ever done, or ever will be done, into himself, into his spirit because his body is dead at this time?

That’s a crazy story. That’s foolishness. What on earth do you believe? You say something awful to your wife or husband or child or friend this morning and you think this guy who lived and died like I described has anything to do with that? You ask forgiveness not just of the person to whom you spoke nastily but also to this guy? And you think because he died and then something happened while he died, that means you’re forgiven for saying the bad thing? Or for doing much worse than that, you’re forgiven. Or that you can be forgiven for literally anything you’ve done?

What?

Nope, that’s not all. This guy’s death doesn’t only mean your forgiveness, it means your life. You will live forever, in God’s Presence, in God’s love, because A)what happened when this guy died, and B)you ask him to forgive you and make you part of his deal.

And of course that’s not all, either, not by a longshot, because once you ask him for help and forgiveness, then it turns out this guy has big plans for your life, that he has this whole radical kingdom which most people around you don’t even realize is happening, based on that whole “love God and your neighbors and your enemies and yourself” (sometimes even harder than loving our enemies) and people’s lives are getting transformed and turned upside down because they asked to be forgiven and made part of this guy’s deal. This guy who died a really long time ago.

I get why some people are atheists. This sounds crazy. It sounds impossible.

It sounds like foolishness.

The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God, this guy’s death, letting himself be killed, is stronger than human strength. People think they have power. Human beings have enough weapons to kill everyone in the world how many times over? That sounds powerful. This guy’s idea of power is loving people who hate us and watching that love change both us and them. It’s more powerful to love an enemy than it is to kill a human being. The weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Or, as this guy Jesus put it, Do not fear the one who can kill the body and, after that, can do nothing else. No, fear the one who can cast both body and soul into hell. Saying the weakness of God is stronger than human strength doesn’t mean God is weak, it means even his weakness surpasses human power, just as his foolishness, or what appears to us as foolishness, surpasses human wisdom.

Here’s the thing about the Cross of Jesus Christ: it doesn’t matter how crazy it sounds to us if it’s true. People want to say, “Well, why did God do it that way?” And that question sounds like it makes sense until we think it through and say, “Hmm, why did God himself, incarnate in Jesus the Messiah, die on a cross to forgive our sins and reconcile us to himself, instead of what? Instead of that much more rational sounding plan for salvation that God used on some other planet? In some alternate universe?”

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

I know it sounds nuts, but that isn’t the point. The point is, is it true? The point is, are we forgiven because Jesus died and resurrected?

Paul is breaking up the Corinthians argument by reminding them that the things they have as distinctives, the things that separate them, are nothing when compared with what brings them together. Was Paul crucified for you? Is Christ divided? No, and no.

I’m going to read from verse six to the end of chapter 2 so you will have Paul’s argument in context.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

We have the mind of Christ. Remember I told you there was more to the crazy-sounding story? That guy who lived and walked on top of water and stopped storms from happening by saying “stop” and claimed to have the authority to forgive other people’s sins—and who can forgive sins but God alone?—and who died not by accident but because he laid down his life for our sake, that guy Jesus has given us his Spirit. We have God’s spirit within us. That makes us able to recognize the gifts God has given us, meaning the spiritual gifts that God gives each of us so that we can partner with him in this work of love and redemption and justice that is his Kingdom.

We have the mind of Christ. Listen again:

14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.’’

For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.”

Jesus did die on a cross, he did resurrect from the dead, he does forgive our sins, he has given us his spirit, and we have the mind of Christ. God has given us his wisdom, specifically that this entire “foolish” story I’ve been describing this morning is not only true, it’s the one truth that matters most. This truth gives meaning to every other truth. It’s true that the earth orbits the sun and that light travels at 186,000 miles per second and those facts have meaning because God created this universe in his wisdom and it works perfectly because of his artistry and those mind-boggling facts reveal something about God to us because God’s creation reveals his eternal power and divine nature, even though they’re invisibile, they’ve been understood and seen through the things God has made. Because we discern the world spiritually through God’s spirit, we know, we can see that the sky and sunsets and the ocean and brown and blue and green eyes are reflections of God, revealing his eternal power and divine nature.

And now, at last, I’m getting to the point. We have Jesus Christ in common. We have our unity in Christ.

That isn’t a small thing, an afterthought, or merely a point to remember when we’re arguing.

The wisdom of God, which is foolishness to those who do not have God’s spirit and do not discern things spiritually, reveals to us the central, unifying truth of the Universe, that this isn’t just some guy who taught some nice things and died a long time ago. This is God in the flesh, the Creator of the Universe making himself just like his creation so that they can understand who God is. When I say this is a story, I don’t mean this is fiction. We all have our life stories. And we are all part of the one story, God’s Love Story, His redemption of his Creation, which is through Jesus Christ, eternal and almighty, Jesus who is both Savior of the world and coming again in power, next time not in meekness but in a way that will be unmistakeable that he is, in fact, Almighty God.

When we have conflict or disagreement, which we do, our unity is deeper. I will tell you, honestly and bluntly, that I’ve bee discouraged lately. I see a lot of disunity, a lot of arguing and name-calling and demeaning others. Let’s be clear, I’m not Paul in this scenario, calling out the believers in Corinth for saying, “I am of Apollo,” “Oh yeah? I belong to Cephas!” I’m also one of the people in conflict.

And don’t misunderstand me, there are things that are worth disagreeing over. I don’t believe that our unity in Christ means that we pretend to agree on everything or even that we automatically set aside any differences as if those don’t matter. If you’re convicted in your spirit of a truth, you have to figure out how to act on that conviction. But this requires very careful discernment. Our unity in Christ is the core of what we believe.

But Paul urges the Corinthian believers, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

So let’s be honest. We’re not all in agreement. We have conflict sometimes. We disagree. So how can there be no divisions among us?

We are united in the same mind and the same purpose.

What mind are we united in? We have the mind of Christ. I’m not spouting platitudes up here, feeding you with cliches to send you home full of spiritually empty calories. We have the mind of Christ. Jesus who is Christ has given us both his Spirit to be with our spirit and his mind to guide our minds and give us wisdom and discernment.

In what purpose are we united? We’re united in God’s Kingdom that is becoming present in our lives and through our lives. Jesus introduced it in Luke, quoting Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then Jesus sits down in the synagogue, all eyes are on him, and he says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is the good news to the poor, he is the release of the captives, he gives sight to the blind and lets the oppressed go free. Our work in his Kingdom is to be agents of what he has proclaimed.

And this: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

We are agents of God’s kingdom, we are ambassadors for Christ; God makes his appeal to people through us.

Our unity comes not through agreeing on everything but through agreeing on the deepest things and remembering that all we do, and all we are, is part of God’s Kingdom. Being part of God’s Kingdom is not only something we do, it’s who we are, just like being God’s children is not something we do, it’s our identity.

God’s life in us, foolishness to the world, is true. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are one in Christ, even when we fail and argue and say stupid things and make terrible mistakes, because our unity is in God’s Spirit. Because of course God’s grace, which we depend on for our very lives, applies to our unity in Him, as well. We don’t have unity in Christ because we try really hard; we have unity in Christ because God’s Spirit unites us. That doesn’t mean we are absolved of responsibility, it means we have confidence that when we fail, God will be faithful to restore us.

Bottom line, what is our bottom line?

Who saved us? Who died for us? Our unity is through Jesus Christ’s spirit and it’s bought with Jesus Christ’s blood.

That’s our agreement. And now we work everything else out.

Oh, and the pink hair?

I think the pink hair is a great reminder not to take ourselves so seriously. Our school both has the rule against pink hair and put on the Color Run that caused the pink hair. It’s a reminder that human wisdom is foolishness to God and that we’re just not as wise as we imagine, so we need to be able to laugh at ourselves. We need to be able to keep our sense of humor, even in our disagreements, remembering that even though we think we’re right, there’s every possibility that we don’t have it figured out. We need God’s wisdom, not our own.

Manuscript: He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease

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This is part of an Irish prayer, commonly atttributed to Patrick and named “Patrick’s Breastplate,” the part of the armor that protects the heart. And I’m Irish.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

That’s a prayer. Asking for Christ with me, before me, behind me, beneath me, above me, on my right, on my left, when I lie down, when I sit down, when I arise.

Theologically, we believe that God is omnipresent. He’s everywhere, somehow present at the same time everywhere. But I don’t think this prayer is invoking God to be present as if he weren’t before. Patrick wasn’t trying to convince God to be around. This prayer does something different. It speaks a reality that we forget, it invokes not God to be here when he wasn’t but me to be here when I wasn’t. Yes, I’m here. You can see me and hear me. But when I imagine that I’m here without God, I’m kind of living a fantasty; I’m not any less here, but to a significant degree, I’m not living in reality. Christ is with me, Christ is before me, Christ is behind me, Christ is in me. This a great prayer. Sometimes people’s response is, “I know that.” But do you?

I have a habit that some people find humorous, or eccentric, or perhaps some less generous word. I walk to school. That’s between 5 and 6 kilometers. It’s not the best walk, since the majority is on caretera vieja leon, which is usually pretty busy. But I like it, because it’s a good prayer time for me. My preferred ways to pray are to write in my journal or be moving while I’m praying. So I walk for about forty minutes and talk with God, because of course he’s there with me. And I ask God to bless people as I pass them, because, you know, we’re walking together and talking and all.

And then I get to school and it’s almost like I say, “Thanks, catch ya later.” God isn’t any less with me than he was when I was talking with him. But I experience him less. I live less aware of his Presence.  He doesn’t go away, but it’s as if I 

John 3:22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized 24 —John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

The first thing to say about John the Baptist is he’s been utterly clear, all along, that he is not the Messiah. He is the messenger. He is the voice calling in the wilderness. To emphasize this, he tells the priests and Levites who ask him, “Are you the one?” “Not only am I not the one, I am not worthy to untie his dirty shoe.” Get this: an ancient Hebrew source says, “A Hebrew slave must not wash the feet of his master nor put his shoes on.” 1st century Hebrew slaves are expected to do everything for their master…except untie the thong of their sandals. I’m assuming because people walked through manure and sewage water and even slaves aren’t that lowly. And recorded saying, ““All services which a slave does for his master, a pupil should do for his teacher with the exception of undoing his shoes.” John the Baptist says of Jesus, “I am not worthy to undo the thong of his sandal.” Do you feel the weight of that? Hebrew slaves don’t have to untie their master’s sandal and John the Baptist says he isn’t worthy to do for Jesus the thing that is beneath a slave to do.

I would call that a “No.”

John has been directing his disciples to Jesus. Jesus walks by and John shouts to his disciples, “Hey, there goes the Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples heard this and followed Jesus. Makes sense. One of them was Andrew, who would spend the rest of Jesus’ life on earth following him, being Jesus’ disciple, and the Gospel tells us the first thing Andrew did was find his brother Simon to tell him, “We’ve found the Messiah.”

So when we look at what John says in our passage, “He must increase but I must decrease,” we’ve already got concrete examples of how John carries this out.

We’re going to walk through the passage and then consider some implications.

In verse 22, John tells us that Jesus and his disciples have headed into the Judean countryside, and they are spending time together there and baptizing people, receiving new followers. Notice this, for Jesus to disciple meant, first, that he simply spent time with them. The first two verses of John four clarify that “in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.”

John continued to baptize, as well, calling people to repentance and directing them toward Jesus, the Lamb of God. Aenon means “springs” or “fountain,” so it’s saying John was baptizing at the springs near Salim. Since John had been baptizing “beyond the Jordan,” meaning east of the Jordan, he’s now moved West and is no longer baptizing folks in that river. We can’t really say how far apart Jesus and John were, because “into the Judean countryside” is like saying, “somewhere around Managua.” It’s also interesting that the Gospel writer tells us, “John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.” That’s a way of marking the chronology of this event. But it’s also striking because it shows that the Apostle John’s readers would have known all about John the Baptist, as this is the only reference to the Baptist’s time in prison. The other three Gospels describe when Herod locked up John and ordered him killed, but the Apostle John has a different focus. We get to see the transition between disciples of John the Baptist and disciples of Jesus.

In verse 25, “a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew.” The question raised may have been which is superior, ceremonial cleansing or baptism. Before John the Baptist, the Jews practiced ceremonial cleansing as laid out in the Law, for everything from washing before meals to purifying themselves after coming in contact with a leper. John describes his ritual as “ a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And somehow, this debate leads John’s disciples to come talk to him. Really, the underlying motive appears to be jealousy. They go to John and object: “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and all are going to him.”

I get this. These guys had committed themselves to following John, and John had made a big impact. Everyone was talking about him. Matthew’s Gospel describes that everyone from tax collectors to Roman soldiers were coming out to hear him. And John could preach up a storm. He was…direct. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

But in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist has one message: go to Jesus. That’s the Lamb of God. I’m not him, I’m just pointing you to him. John needs to correct his disciples now, who are apparently jealous on his behalf (and maybe their own):

No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him. 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

There are few statements in the Bible that better capture our position with Jesus than this. First of all, I’m not the Messiah. So true. Neither are you. Agreed? Good. John says, “I have been sent ahead of him.” And here is the relationship he sees: He who has the bride is the bridegroom. Jesus is the bridegroom. Jesus uses this same analogy about himself in Mark 2, when people scold him that the Pharisees and John’s disciples are fasting but his disciples aren’t: The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.”

So Jesus is the bridegroom and there’s a big wedding on. So what does the friend of the bridegroom do? He rejoices! The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled. John has his joy fulfilled. I love this answer to “Rabbi, remember that guy? The one you talked about? He’s baptizing [which he wasn’t] and people are going to him!”

Have you ever tried your best to teach something and realized “they aren’t getting it?” I know a bunch of you have. I have. John doesn’t say, “Idiots! Haven’t you been listening? What have I been saying this whole time?” No, he says, “my joy is fulfilled!” Jesus says in the 15th chapter of this Gospel, “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” John the Baptist’s joy is complete!

John concludes, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” My joy is fulfilled; he must increase, but I must decrease.” Do you hear any sadness in that? John is completing his work, his calling. His moment to be the center of attention, to preach, to baptize, is passing, and Jesus’ public ministry is beginning. IN fact, the other three Gospels all say some variation of this: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.John’s arrest is Jesus’ moment to begin preaching the Kingdom of God and the good news. But in this moment, we get a response very similar to Simeon when he holds the baby Jesus, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”


That’s our passage. Let’s talk about some implications.

He must increase, but I must decrease.

John’s specific calling was to prepare the people for Jesus. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s task is nearing its end. John must step back out of the center of attention so that Jesus can step into it.

Though I am sometimes wary of spiritualizing a literal truth, I think that we can appropriate John’s statement. Going back to the Irish prayer we began with, Christ is in me and before me and behind me.

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

That’s both a reminder and a request. May Christ be in the heart of every man who thinks of me. May thinking of me be a moment to think of Christ. And may Jesus Christ so increase in me that when someone speaks of me, their words turn to Him.

And because Jesus is always present, Christ is in every eye that seems me, and every ear that hears me.

So how does Jesus increase and we decrease?

1.We lead people to Jesus, not to us.

That’s a tricky line, because they are paying attention to us. But if they aren’t getting more of Jesus, if we are increasing, then we’ve lost the point and might even be leading in the wrong direction.
2. We rejoice in him.

John the Baptist isn’t fighting this, he’s embracing it. He’s rejoicing in it. The friend of the groom is not having a fit that the attention isn’t on him nor that the bride isn’t for him. He is rejoicing that the bridegroom has come.

What does it mean that we must decrease? I don’t think it means that we hide and withdraw and try never to be noticed again. I don’t think we become less than we are. In John’s case, it was time for him to transition roles. For everything there is a season. We, in whatever stage of life we’re in now, are praying for Jesus who is Christ to increase in us, and everything that isn’t him to decrease in us. And rejoicing does this. When I truly rejoice in God, when I consciously remember and thank him, then the small, selfish part of me recedes. God is filing me up more and there just isn’t as much room for that.

3Next, Jesus increases in us and we decrease when we let people know that it’s God’s strength, and not ours, God’s goodness, and not ours.

Paul writes For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” II Cor 4:7 I know you’ve heard this from me before, but you’re probably going to keep on hearing it as long as I’m up here preaching: we are here by God’s grace and we communicate that grace when we let others see how truly messed up we are. Now I know it’s a little unfair that I have more material than most in this area, but we all get to play the cards we’re dealt. God increases in us when we recognize, to others—and more importantly, to ourselves—that it’s God in us, not some power or kindness or love we just summon up within ourselves. In fact, I’d say that when I call others’ attention to this, it helps me also remember and believe this is true.

4. Finally, as I was reflecting on how we seek to have Jesus increase in us and let ourselves decrease, another famous prayer came to mind. When we talk about things that need to decrease in us, that part of me that resists God because it wants to be in control, it wants to be the center and get the glory, we’re talking about something that would kill us. The wages of sin are death. Scripture uses some other words for that: die, crucify, put to death. That’s what we need, because those things are death in us. If I went the other way, I must increase but he must decrease, that would destroy me. Grace means God has us, even when we fail, and he is faithful to help us. Perhaps the most important think for us in cooperating with God that he might increase and I decrease is simply believing that the true me, the me that God made and intends, the most fully alive me, is the one in which God does increases. The real question of faith is whether we believe God that he will make us fully alive or if we believe our ego that screams and yells not to die.

So listen to this prayer as a prayer of belief: Help us to believe that this is what we truly want, so that God will increase in us.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.